Stendhal Festival Is Leading the Live

By Natasha Rainey
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The words “live music” are practically as tempting as their referent. Could festival season really be upon us? Stendhal Festival says yes! 

Marking 10 years of Stendhal, the Limavady based event are pitching themselves back on Ballymully Cottage Farm for two weekends of pure live music - that doesn’t require a stable Wi-Fi connection.

Some 13 months ago, venues locked their doors and gig-goers moved to streaming sites. Festival leaders like Glastonbury and Primavera Sound have been postponed, again, to summer 2022. Even with provisional live events happening in Liverpool and Barcelona, the future of live music remains unclear. Nonetheless, the folks at Stendhal are saying no to another no-go festival.

Founders of Stendhal, John Cartwright and Ross Parkhill, have made clear their intentions to go ahead with the festival this summer with COVID safety measures in place while ensuring that intangible experience of festival culture that feels almost lost in the bureaucracy of the pandemic.

“It’ll be a case of social distancing markers, social distancing marshals, hand sanitising stations, signage, bubbles; things that are becoming regular within our own lexicon at the minute. So, it’s nothing people won’t have seen before. It’s just a case of taking those existing measures and putting them in an outdoor festival setting.“ – JC

Safety guaranteed, can gig-going ever be truly recovered? The looseness of live music before the pandemic is now under scrutiny, it’s sort of like if you transmit a disease, it’s probably at a gig. But I’m thinking more STIs.

Beyond sweaty crowds, however, are hardworking people.

“The big thing about getting live music back is that it’s an industry that has almost been abandoned during the pandemic – musicians and performers were the first people to stop and they’re going to be amongst the last people to resume.

These are working people that have bills to pay and mortgages and families and I think it’s getting to the point now where it’s vital that they’re at least given an opportunity to get back and do what they do.

On top of that, people love gigs. It might sound frivolous there are people out there that live for gigging. It can affect people’s mental health, their community, their friendships, their connections. There are loads of reasons why we have to do something to get guys back on-stage playing music.” – JC

That’s the thing about live music, streamed music or music in general. It’s a keystone of culture, especially in Northern Ireland. Headphones in, world out – amirite? Northern Ireland is host to a multifaceted culture of talent, beyond music, however, oppressive political narratives overtake the need for a cultural reformation. Some look to mainstream radio, some are told what to listen to and a lot do not know the capability of the Northern Irish identity. And even if us natives do, does anyone else?

“From day dot the festival has been about promoting the arts in NI. This year’s programme is going to be 85% Northern Irish. Most years it is 85%, the difference this year is we’ll not be bringing anyone over the water, so to speak, it’ll all be Irish. That’s been the driver.” – RP

“A fantastically frustrating thing for us in the 10 years we’ve been doing this is watching really, really talented Northern Irish acts come and then go because they don’t seem to be given the time of day by what would be considered the mainstream music industry. I implore anybody to go and listen to the guys we’ve got playing this year: go and listen to Amy Montgomery; go and listen to Ciaran Lavery; go and listen to Joshua Burnside; go and listen to Roe. Any of these guys go and listen and tell me they’re not as good as what’s on Radio 1 or the charts or what is being downloaded on Spotify. I challenge anybody to tell me they’re not as good as anyone else that’s out there.

You don’t need to be going elsewhere to find top class artists, it’s right here on your doorstep. And they need your support.” – JC

“Another issue with Northern Ireland is infrastructure. We can’t go down to Limavady, which is a small town, and see original music all the time. And it’s the same with Cookstown or Strabane. There’s no real infrastructure for artists of great quality to carve out a career within Northern Ireland. So, showcasing over 90 over a normal Stendhal weekend is ultimately a big celebration of what we’ve got.

It’s very hard with our leadership and the value placed on arts and culture. I would be really keen about a collective of people going to reinstate the department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Especially post-pandemic. To give a real focus, to be at the top table in Stormont, look at funding for arts and culture per head here compared to Scotland, Wales, England – it’s a bit of a joke. We live in a post-conflict society which none of them do. So, in 10 years’ time it could be great. “– RP

“That’s not to say that within the 10 years we’ve done this - there have been pockets and places that you can see growth. There have been labels and management companies cropping up. There is a micro-industry in Northern Ireland, but there’s a way to go. In saying that, there are people with passion. It’s just about getting that ball rolling.

The sheer precocity of John and Ross is astounding by seeing the Stendhal grounds in the ’21 Festival infancy. But the pure grind of these two lads and their team is evidenced by much more than a visit to Ballymully Cottage Farm. 10 years in the making, Stendhal has gone from strength to strength ultimately valorising their mission of endorsing arts and culture and stapled in its truly Northern Irish base.

While COVID has struck cancellation posts to nearly every other festival, Stendhal went into a survival of the fittest mode. Practically the last festival in Europe to call it quits, the event compromised to present live music in some form.

“We didn’t really take a year off. We tried valiantly to run 500 people four weekends in a row. We were kinda the last to pull the pin on that of festivals in Europe that cancelled. So, we’ve been working the whole time and I suppose the drive is we love what we do. We’ve invested 10 years and we’re very passionate about it.

To contextualise the sacrifice, money and investment that has gone into this, in the last 5 years for example, all the other festivals in Northern Ireland, we’d be at the same level as, have got from the Arts Council between £300,000 and £600,000, one of which got £1.2 million. In that 5-yea r period, we got £19,000*, so it’s quite a gap. And we build a pop-up town for 10,000 people they go into purpose-built venues with toilets and all the stuff.” – RP

The enthusiasm embodied by John and Ross is enough to buy a ticket. But where did Stendhal start?

“This man [Ross] said to me: “do ya think your dad would let us the fields for a weekend to run a festival.” Before we had even run a gig night, from that minute in 2008, this festival has slowly morphed into our absolute worlds. The fighting we’ve had to do for it, the badgering we’ve had to do for it, the absolute brass necking that we’ve had to do to get where we are and deal with the fact that nobody had done anything like we have tried to do in this area before. And nobody knew how to go about it. We’ve worked our absolute backsides off for this, not just us but our team. We’ve had a team of volunteers with us that have been there the whole way.

We grew up here, we love here, we were never able to go to gigs here. We wanted something we could point to and say, “this is what Limavady is.” And here we are sitting 10 years in and all we can really think now is “look what we’ve achieved.” But in the back of our minds, it’s “what if we could do this?” The potential for this place is massive, absolutely massive, and that is something that’s going to keep us coming at this for as long as we breathe, pretty much.” – JC

Stendhal Festival will take place 9th and 10th July & 12th – 14th August at Ballymully Cottage Farm, Limavady.

Visit their website for tickets

Camping and caravan parking is available on site.